A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Surrender of Kut, Part III: Siege, Failure of the Relief Expeditions, and Townshend's Surrender

Fast-moving developments on the contemporary scene have slowed down my finishing my three-part series on  the 1916 surrender at Kut in Iraq, the largest British surrender ever at the time it occurred. Part I, devoted mainly to the background and introducing the cast of characters, appeared June 25; Part II, describing the campaign through Townshend's investment bu the Turkish 6th Army and the beginning of the siege, appeared last Friday. This takes the story through the failed relief expeditions,the surrender, and its tragic aftermath, and includes an appearance by a not-yet-prominent T.E. Lawrence aimed at bribing the Turkish commander.
The more I see of this foul country, the more convinced I am that we are a seafaring people, lured to disaster by this river. The River Tigris has been a disaster and a delusion to us. These lines are untenable without two railways, one across to Nasriyah and the other up to Baghdad. At the present moment, we can be cut off if the river falls or if they manage to put in guns anywhere down the river and sink a couple of our boats, or even one, in the narrows, and so block the channel. We have got no policy. We came here and we saw the Tigris and we said: "This is as good as the sea, and up we will go," and now it will dry up and we shall get left.
— Aubrey Herbert, Diary near Kut, April 1916, in Herbert, Mons, Anzac, and Kut

Field Marshal von der Goltz
At the end of Part II, Townshend found himself besieged in Kut in December 1915. German Field Marshal von der Goltz had arrived on the scene to take overall direction. (For profiles and photos of all the commanders, see Part I.) Though Townshend had supplies for a siege of several months, he understated them, hoping for early relief.

After the war, Townshend wrote a memoir,  My Campaign (also called My Campaign in Mesopotamia); the second volume of which, dealing with the material covered in this post, is available free online. Like all generals' memoirs it is self-serving and self-justifying, and at times almost delusional towards the end, when Townshend claims credit for the Mudros armistice.

The British Commander in Mesopotamia, General Nixon, designated Sir Fenton John Aylmer, 13th Baronet of Donadea.
to lead the first relief expedition. Aylmer had won a Victoria Cross in one of the local Indian Wars, but he was no Marlborough or Wellington. He started up the Tigris in January 1916. He fought battles at Sheikh Sa‘ad, "the Wadi," and Hanna, and after taking some 2,700 casualties, finally fell back.

The failure of Aylmer's relief expedition also spelled doom for General Sir John Nixon, who had dispatched Townshend to Baghdad and supported the idea of the siege at Kut to "hold the Turks in place." He was replaced with General Sir Percy Lake, another Indian Army officer who had also been Chief of the Canadian General Staff. To command the next relief expedition, he chose General George Gorringe. That was in March.

Khalil Pasha
In the meantime the odds had shifted considerably. The overall Ottoman area commander, Khalil Pasha (known in modern Turkish as Halil Kut after taking his greatest victory as a surname), took command of the Kut front. He also brought 20,000 or more reinforcements, greatly enhancing Ottoman strength.

Townshend's troops were running low on supplies,and various attempts by British vessels to run up the Tigris by night were defeated by Ottoman artillery. Townshend was suffering from fever; but von der Goltz, ae 70, was also ill and would die of typhus before the end of the siege.

Gorringe's advance made progress, fighting three battles from April 5-17, but were unable to adanc past Sannaiyat. That left Townshend with little hope.What apparently was the first use of air drops of supplies took place in April, but the early aircraft could carry too little relief, and several attempts to run British supply ships upriver to Kut failed.

On April 19, too late to help Townshend, Baron von der Goltz died in Baghdad, reportedly of Typhus.Some sources say typhoid; rumors at thew time said poison; but various fevers were rampant on the Tigris front.) Goltz missed his greatest success by two weeks, but the 70-year old Prussian Field Marshal and military historian who had trained the Ottoman Army had his victory nonetheless.

It was clearly time to treat for terms. Townshend, who had managed to maintain telegraphic contact with the relief forces, was apparently the origin of the idea that a "ransom" might be paid to free his troops under parole. (The idea that this was essentially a bribe, either to Khalil Pasha or to the Ottoman authorities generally, seems obvious.) Townshend suggested £1 million sterling. London upped the ante: it authorized its negotiators to offer £2 million.

The three negotiators, mostly intelligence officers of company rank, would include two who would go on to greater fame:

Aubrey Herbert
Aubrey Herbert, Member of Parliament and a traveler and linguist and a well-known Turcophile who spoke Turkish and other eastern languages, was attached by the War Office to Naval Intelligence in the Mesopotamian campaign, though he had links to other branches. He would eventually be a champion of Albanian independence and was reputedly offered the Albanian throne.

T.E. Lawrence, 1915
T.E. Lawrence,  an intelligence officer attached to the Arab Bureau in Cairo. Later in 1916 he would be closely associated with the Arab Revolt in the Hijaz, and if you don't know who Lawrence of Arabia was, why are you reading this blog?

The third member was Col. Edward Beach, representative of Indian Army Intelligence. By this time London was blaming the Indian Army and the India Office for the debacle in "Mespot," Though Beach outranked the two captains with him, his role is a little vague.

The fullest description of the negotiations is in Herbert's diary, reproduced in his Mons, Anzac and Kut. The Kut material is online here, and the whole book is available here. 

The negotiations failed. Enver Pasha, the Ottoman War Minister, had vetoed the ransom; he wanted Britain humiliated. Townshend, ill and seemingly a bit out of control, had apparently already decided he would surrender unconditionally. Attempts to negotiate for the safety of the Arab population of Kut went nowhere (many were killed after the surrender).

And that was the end. Townshend surrendered unconditionally. In the campaign Britain had lost between 23,000 and 30,000 killed and wounded and surrendered some 12,000.

It was a devastating defeat, worse by far than Gallipoli, though the fact that many of the dead and captured were British Indian soldiers made it less well known. It was the largest surrender of British Empire forces ever (until Singapore 1942); the longest siege on record, longer than Ladysmith in the Boer War or Plevna in the Russo-Turkish War (again until Leningrad in WWII). Townshend got to spend the war in a nice villa on the Prinkipo islands near Constantinople, where the Byzantines used to exile their deposed Emperors. His men were not so lucky. The British officers were treated decently but the Indian rank an file were sent to work on prisoner chain gangs drilling railroad tunnels in he Taurus for the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway. It's been estimated that at least 70% of the Indian Army POWs were dead by the end of the war.

Townshend was released at last during the armistice negotiations; in his memoir he claims a role in making the peace, which is a bit delusional, and he was later elected to Parliament.

His men were not so lucky.

Townshend and Khalil with their officers after the surrender:

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